Washington DC – Monuments And Memories

AMONG the projects in the minds of the founders of the federal city was a monument to celebrate the success of the American Revolution. George Washington personally selected the site for it, due south of the center of the President’s House. Meanwhile the Continental Congress had recommended the erection of an equestrian statue of General Washington, and, immediately after his death, the Congress then in session resolved to rear a monument under which his body should be entombed. Butthough resolutions were cheap, monuments were costly, and the project gradually faded out of mind till revived in 1816 by a member of Congress from South Carolina. Still nothing happened, till another generation devised a plan for raising the money by popular subscription without waiting longer for a Government appropriation. The Washington Monument Society was organized with a membership fee of one dollar, so as to give every American opportunity to subscribe. By 1848 a sufficient fund had been collected to spur Congress into presenting a site ; and the spot chosen was that marked by Washington for the monument to the Revolution, thus happily combining his plan with the nation’s tribute to himself. Tests of the ground showed that, in order to get a safe footing, it would be necessary to move a little further to the eastward, which accounts for the present monument’s being not quite on the short axis of the White House.

For the original plan of a statue, an obelisk of granite and marble was substituted, which by its simplicity of lines, its towering height, and its purity of color, should symbolize the exceptional character and services of the foremost American. The building fund held out pretty well till a politico-religious quarrel arose over the acceptance, for incorporation in the monument, of a fine block of African marble sent by the Pope ; and on Washington’s birthday, 1855, a Know-Nothing mob descended upon the headquarters of the Society, seized its books and papers, and took forcible possession of the monument. The Know-Nothing party ended its political existence three years later, and the monument went back to its former custodians ; but the riotous demonstration had checked the orderly progress of the work, and, as the Civil War was imminent, the shaft, then one hundred seventy-eight feet high, was roofed over to await the return of normal conditions. It was not till 1876 that, under the patriotic impetus of the centenary, Congress was induced to cooperate. The work was vigorously pushed from 188o to 1884; and in the spring of 1885, when it had attained a height of five hundred fifty-five feet and five and five-tenths inches, occurred the formal dedication of the Washington National Monument as we see it today.

For the benefit of any one whose pleasure in a masterpiece is measured with a plummet, it may be noted that the Monument falls less than fifty feet short of the Tower of Babel ; to him who revels in terms of distance, the glistening pile will appeal on the ground that it is visible from a crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, more than forty miles away as the bee flies. But most of its neighbors in Washington find it for other reasons an unceasing joy. To us it is more truly at the heart of things than even the Capitol. It is the hoary sentinel at our water-gate ; or, spread the city out like a fan, and the Monument is the pivot which holds the frame together.

The visitor who has seen it once has just begun to see it. A smooth-faced obelisk, devoid of ornament,it would appear the stolidest object in the landscape ; in truth, it is as versatile as the clouds. Every change in your position reveals it in a new phase. Go close to it and look up, and its walls seem to rise infinitely and dissolve into the atmosphere ; stand on the neighboring hills, and you are tempted to throw a stone over its top ; sail down the Potomac, and the slender white shaft is still sending its farewells after you when the city has passed out of sight. It plays chameleon to the weather. It may be gay one moment and grave the next, like the world. Sometimes, in the varying lights, it loses its perspective and becomes merely a flat blade struck against space ; an hour later, every line and seam is marked with the crispness of chiseled sculpture. On a fair morning, it is radiant under the first beams of the rising sun ; in the full of the moon, it is like a thing from another world — cold, shimmering, unreal. Often in the spring and fall its peak is lost in vapor, and the shaft looks as if it were a tall, thin Ossa penetrating the home of the gods. Again, with its base wrapped in fog and its summit in cloud, it is a symbol of human destiny, emerging from one mystery only to pass into another. Always the same, yet never twice alike, it is to the old Washingtonian a being instinct with life, a personality to be known and loved. It has relatively little to tell the passing stranger, but many confidences for the friend of years.

To realize all that it is to us, you must see it on a changeable day. Come with me then to the Capitol, whence; from an outlook on the western terrace, we face a thick and troubled sky. The air is murky. Clouds fringed with gray fleece, which have been hanging so low as to hide the apex of the Monument, are folding back upon themselves in the southern heavens, forming a rampart dark and forbidding. Against this the obelisk is projected, having caught and held one ray of pure sunshine which has found an opening and shot through like a searchlight. It is plain that an atmospheric battle is at hand. The garrulous city seems struck dumb ; the timid trees are shivering with apprehension ; the voice of the wind is half sob and half warning. The search-ray vanishes as the door of the cloud fort is closed and the rumbling of the bolts is heard behind it. The landscape in the background is blotted from view by eddies of yellow dust, as if a myriad of horsemen were making a tentative charge. Silent and unmoved, the obelisk stands there, a white warrior bidding defiance to the forces of sky and earth. As the subsiding dust marks the retreat of the cavalry, the artillery opens fire. First one masked porthole and then another belches flame, but the sharp crash or dull roar which follows passes quite unnoticed by the champion. Then comes the rattle of musketry, as a sheet of hail sweeps across the field.

We are not watching a combat, only an assault, for these demonstrations call forth no response. On the champion — taking everything, giving nothing — the only effect they produce is a change of color from snowy white to ashen gray. Even that is but for a moment. As the storm of hail melts into a shower of limpid raindrops to which the relieved trees open their palms, the wind ceases its wailing, and the wall of cloud falls apart to let the sun’s rays through once more.

The Monument is, of course, only one of many memorials to great men in Washington. We have heroes and philanthropists, poets and physicians, soldiers and men of science, mounted and afoot, standing and sitting. We have horses in every posture that will hold a rider : Jackson’s balanced on its hind legs like the toy charger on the nursery mantelpiece ; Washington’s getting ready to try the same trick ; Sheridan’s dashing along the line to the lilt of Buchanan Read’s poem ; Pulaski’s, Greene’s and McPherson’s, Hancock’s and McClellan’s and Logan’s, walking calmly over the field ; Scott’s and Sherman’s watching the parade. The best equestrian statue is that of General George H. Thomas, by Quincy Ward, at the junction of Massachusetts Avenue with Fourteenth Street. Here we have the acme of art in treating such a subject : spirit coupled with repose. The horse has been moving, but has been checked by the rider to give him a chance to look about ; they could go on the next moment if need be, or they could stand indefinitely just as they are.

The Scott statue, at Massachusetts Avenue and Sixteenth Street, is good if we take it apart and examine it piecemeal; but the massive rider threatens to break down his slender-limbed steed, which is, by some mischance, of the mare’s build and not the stallion’s. General Sheridan, who used to live within a stone’s throw of this statue, lay while ill in a bedroom commanding a view of it. “I hope,” he remarked one day, “that if a grateful country ever commemorates me in bronze, it will give me a better mount than old Scott’s !” It is hard to find anything new to do with a general officer and a horse without putting them into some impossible attitude. A sculptor who attempts a reasonable innovation is liable to be snubbed for it, as one was not long ago when he offered in competition a statue of General Grant, dismounted, with his bridle swung over one of his arms while he used the other hand to hold his field-glass.

Some of the best-known statues in the city have attracted as much attention by their travels as by their artistic qualities. One of these is Greenough’s colossal marble presentment of George Washington, which visitors to the Capitol ten years ago will recall as standing in the open space facing the main east portico. Greenough was in Italy in 1835, when it was ordered, and spent eight years on its production. It shows Washington seated, nude to the waist, and below that draped in a flowing robe. It weighed, when finished, twelve tons without a pedestal, and required twenty-two yoke of oxen to haul from Florence to Genoa. Peasants who saw it on the way took it for the image of some mighty saint, and dropped upon their knees and crossed themselves as it passed. The man-of-war which was waiting for it at Genoa had no hatchway large enough to take it in, so a merchant vessel had to be chartered for its voyage to America. Arrived at the Capitol, where it was intended to stand in the center of the rotunda, it could not be squeezed through the doors, and the masonry had to be cut away. Then it was discovered that it was causing the floor to settle, and a lot of shoring had to be done in the crypt underneath. Finally, as it was not suited to its place, the masonry around the doorway was ripped out again, and the statue was set up in the plaza, where it remained till 1908, the sport of rains and frosts and souvenir-maniacs, when it took what every one hopes will be its last journey — to the National Museum. The original purpose of Congress was to have a “pedestrian statue” costing, all told, five thousand dollars. What has eventuated is Washington’s head set on a torso of Jupiter Tonans, costing, with all its traveling expenses, more than fifty thousand dollars.

Another peregrinating statue is that of Thomas Jefferson, which stands to-day against the east wall of the rotunda. In 1833 it occupied the center of this room. When Greenough’s Washington was brought in, Jefferson was removed to the Library of Congress, which was then housed in the rooms of the west front of the Capitol. In 185o it was carried up to the White House and planted in the middle of the north garden. It held that site for twenty-four years and then came back to the rotunda, from which there is no reason to think it will be moved again.

The only parallel to these instances of frequent shifts in the local art world is the case of a painting entitled “Love and Life,” presented by the English artist, George F. Watts, to our Government. Mr. Cleveland, who was President at the time, hung it in the White House, but the prudish comments passed upon it by visitors led to its transfer to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In the Roosevelt administration it made three trips, first to the White House, then back to the Corcoran Gallery, and then to the White House again, where it rested till President Taft came in, only to be rebanished to the Corcoran Gallery. President Wilson had it returned to the White House, and there it is at the present writing.

Although there has never been in Washington a definite scheme for the location of statues, which have been planted, hit or miss, wherever space offered, accident has arranged a few of them so as to form a rather remarkable historical series. Starting with the Washington National Monument, in honor of the foremost figure in the Revolution and the President who set in motion the machinery of the embryo republic, we pass directly northward to the White House, home of all his successors in the Presidency and emblematic of the civil government which emerged from the War for Independence. A few hundred feet further northward stands the statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, the first fought by the United States as a nation. About a half-mile more to the north we reach the statue of Winfield Scott, the general whose capture of Mexico City ended the second foreign war in which the nation engaged. All that is needed to complete this remarkable procession is a memorial arch on Sixteenth Street heights, to the soldiers and sailors on both sides of the Civil War which cemented the Union begun under Washington.

Strange to say, the city which best knew Lincoln and Grant has had, up to this time, no out-of-doors statue whatever of Grant and no adequate one of Lincoln. In Lincoln Park, about a mile east of the Capitol, is the Emancipation statue, and in front of the City Hall there is an insignificant standing figure of Lincoln, perched on a pillar so high that the features can be seen only dimly. A statue of Grant will later occupy the central pedestal of a group in the little park at the foot of the western slope of the Capitol grounds, which it is proposed to call Union Square. On either side of Grant, the plan originally was to place Sherman and Sheridan ; but as the Sherman and Sheridan statues already set up elsewhere are so diverse in character, it has been questioned whether they would fit into the Union Square group. After many suggestions, controversies, and reports, Congress decided, a year or two ago, upon a form of memorial for Lincoln, which is already under way. It will be a marble temple, designed by Henry Bacon, in Potomac Park, with a statue of the War President, by Daniel Chester French, visible in the recesses of its dignified colonnade.

Besides the scores of statues and miles of painted portraits which keep vivid the memory of great and good men who are gone, Washington has many institutions and buildings with personal associations that fulfil a similar purpose. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, for instance, was the gift of the late William W. Corcoran, the financier. The national deaf-mute college at Kendall Green, on the northeastern edge of the city, recalls its original benefactor, Amos Kendall, who was Postmaster-general under Jackson, as well as the work of Doctor Edward M. Gallaudet in raising it from its modest beginnings to its present eminence. The Pension Office, in which eight in-augural balls have been held, takes first rank among our public edifices for architectural ugliness. It is nevertheless an honor to the memory of Quartermaster-general Meigs, who asked the privilege of proving, in an era of extravagance, that a suitable building could be reared for the money allotted to it, and who turned back into the treasury a large slice of his appropriation after having paid every bill. The present Library of Congress is, in a like manner, a monument to the late Bernard R. Green, whose engineering skill and administrative faculty performed a feat corresponding to General Meigs’s ; it reminds us, also, of Thomas Jefferson, whose private library, purchased after the burning of the Capitol, formed the nucleus of the present magnificent collection. The Soldiers’ Home, near the north boundary of the city, commemorates General Scott’s success in Mexico, the tribute he exacted there for a breach of truce being used in founding this beautiful retreat, where veterans of the regular army may pass their declining years in comfort.

Few people, probably, are aware that the Smithsonian Institution, whose fame is as wide as civilization, owes its origin to the rejection of a manuscript prepared for publication. James Smithson, an Englishman of means, who had been a frequent contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, sent in, a little less than a century ago, a paper which the censors refused to print ; and its author avenged the affront by altering his will, in which he had bequeathed his entire fortune to the Society, so as to throw the reversion to the United States, a country he had never seen, to be used for “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Congress had a long quibble about the disposal of the money, but at last hit upon a plan, and since then has turned over much of the public scientific research work to be performed “under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution.” The accumulation of trophies of exploration, historical relics, and gifts of objects of art and industry from foreign potentates, presently overflowed the accommodations of the Institution proper, and a National Museum was built to house these treasures. The Smithsonian commemorates not only the beneficence of Smithson, but the great achievements of its several executive heads, like Joseph Henry’s in electromagnetism, Spencer F. Baird’s in the culture of fish as a source of food-supply, and Samuel P. Langley’s in aerial navigation and the standardization of time.

The old City Hall, better known now as the District Court House, will be remembered as the place where the first President Harrison probably caught the cold which resulted in his death. It has a tragic association with another President, also, for in one of its court-rooms was conducted the trial of Guiteau for assassinating James A. Garfield. This trial excited vigorous comment throughout the country by what seemed to many critics an unwarrantable latitude allowed the defendant for self-exploitation.

Judge Walter T. Cox, who presided, was one of the ablest and most conscientious jurists who ever sat on the Supreme bench of the District. From personal attendance on the trial, I feel sure that the course pursued by him was the only one which could have given the jury a sure ground for dooming the assassin to death ; and it was doubtless a realization of that fact which held in check the mob spirit that began to show itself at one stage and threatened to save the Government the trouble of putting up a gallows. The popular rancor against Guiteau was so strong that in order to get him safely into the Court House from the “black Maria” which brought him from the jail every morning, and to reverse the operation at the close of every day’s session, the vehicle was backed up within about twenty feet of one of the basement doors, and a double file of police, standing shoulder to shoulder with clubs drawn, made a narrow little lane through which he was rushed at a quickstep, his face blanched with terror, and his furtive eyes fixed on the earth.

Another historical incident is associated with the old building, to which many attribute the final resolve of President Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. I refer to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. A bill to this end, introduced by Henry Wilson in December, 1861, was hotly debated in Congress but finally passed, and was signed on April 16, 1862. Only loyal owners were to be paid for their slaves, and every applicant for compensation had to take an iron-clad oath of allegiance to the Government. The whole business was handled by a board of three commissioners, who employed for their assistance an experienced slave-dealer imported from Baltimore. They met in one of the court-rooms, and the dealer put the negroes through their paces just as he had been accustomed to in the heyday of his trade, making them dance to show their suppleness and bite various tough substances as a test of the soundness of their teeth. Many of the black men and women came into the room singing hosannas to glorify the dawn of freedom. The highest appraisement of any slave was seven hundred and eighty-eight dollars for a good blacksmith ; the lowest was ten dollars and ninety-five cents for a baby. These were about half the prices which would have been brought but for the fact that only one million dollars was appropriated, whereas the total estimated value of the slaves paid for was nearer two million, and all payments had to be scaled accordingly.

A remarkable feature of this episode was the discovery of how many slaveholders there were who were not white people. Now and then in the past, when for some special reason a negro had been freed, he would save his earnings till he had accumulated enough to buy his wife and children, who still remained in bondage to him till he saw fit to manumit them. One case which attracted wide attention was that of a woman who had bought her husband, a graceless scamp who proceeded to celebrate his good fortune by becoming an incorrigible drunkard. This had so outraged the feelings of his wife that she had finally sold him to a dealer who was picking up a boatload of cheap slaves to carry south. From that hour she had lost sight of him ; but she haunted the commissioners’ sessions from day to day in the hope that the Government, now that it was going into the slave-buying business, might give her a little addition to the bargain price at which she had sold the old man.

Judiciary Square, in which the Court House and the Pension Office stand, was, when Chief Justice Taney lived in Indiana Avenue, a neighborhood of consequence. Several of the older buildings there-about exhale a flavor of fifty or sixty years ago, and tradition connects them with such personages as Rufus Choate, Caleb Cushing, Thomas H. Benton, Stephen A. Douglas, John C. Fremont, and John A. Dix.

Opposite the east park of the Capitol, as we have already seen, stands the Old Capitol, a building with a variegated history. It was erected for the accommodation of Congress after the burning of the Capitol by the British. In it Henry Clay passed some years of his Speakership, and till very lately there was a scar on the wall of one of the rooms which was said to have been made by his desk. Under its roof the first Senators from Indiana, Illinois, and Mississippi took their seats. In front of it, President Monroe was inaugurated. After Congress left it to return to the restored Capitol, it was rented for a boarding-house, patronized chiefly by Senators and Representatives. Here John C. Calhoun lived for some time, and here he died. In one of the rooms, Persico,. the Italian sculptor, worked out the model of his “Discoverer.” In another, Ann Royall edited her Huntress.

After the Civil War broke out, the Old Capitol was turned into a jail for the confinement of military of-fenders who. were awaiting trial by court-martial, and for Confederate spies and other persons accused of unlawfully giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Belle Boyd, who was locked up there for a while, has left us her impressions of the place as “a vast brick building, like all prisons, somber, chilling, and repulsive.” She describes William P. Wood, who was superintendent of the prison, as “having a humane heart beneath a rough exterior.” Every Sunday he used to provide facilities for religious worship to his compulsory guests, announcing the hours and forms in characteristic fashion : “All you who want to hear the word of God preached according to Jeff Davis, go down into the yard ; and all of you who want to hear it preached according to Abe Lincoln, go into No. 16.” In the jail yard Henry Wirz, who had been the keeper of the Confederate military prison at Andersonville, Georgia, where so many Union soldiers died of starvation and disease, was hanged for murder. At the close of the war the building was divided into a block of dwellings, of which the southernmost was long the home of the late Justice Field of the Supreme Court. The Justice used to enjoy telling his visitors about the distinguished men from the South who, after dining at his table, had roamed over the premises and located their one-time places of confinement.

The oldest house of worship in Washington is St. Paul’s, a spireless Protestant Episcopal church not far from the Soldiers’ Home. It stands well toward the rear of the Rock Creek Cemetery, which also contains the world-famous bronze by St. Gaudens, in the Adams lot. This is a seated female figure, in flowing classic drapery, to which no one has ventured to attach a permanent title, though it has been variously known as “Grief” and “The Peace of God.” St. Paul’s goes back to the colonial era and was built of brick imported from England. A younger church, nevertheless numbered among the oldest relics of its class within the city proper, is St. John’s, at the corner of Sixteenth and H streets. It was designed by Latrobe about the time he undertook the restoration of the Capitol and was consecrated in 1816. It has long been called “the President’s church” because so many tenants of the White House, just across Lafayette Square, have worshiped in it.

Madison and Monroe were the first, and the vestry soon set apart one pew to be preserved always for the free use of the reigning Presidential family. John Quincy Adams was a Unitarian, but came to the after-noon services ; and Jackson, though a Methodist, was frequently to be seen there. Van Buren was a constant attendant both as Vice-president and as President. William Henry Harrison, for the month he lived in Washington, came regularly, regardless of the weather or his state of health ; and he was to have been confirmed the very week he died. Tyler was a member of the congregation. Polk had other affiliations, but Taylor, Fillmore, and Buchanan used the President’s pew. Then came a break in the line till Arthur entered the White House ; and his retirement appears to have been followed by another lapse in the succession till Mrs. Roosevelt revived it. Her husband used to accompany her from time to time, though he retained his active connection with the Reformed (Dutch) communion. Since the Roosevelts, the line has been broken again. John Quincy Adams became so fond of St. John’s that, when he returned to Washington as a Representative, he renewed his Sunday visits. He paid close attention to the preliminary service but seemed to sleep through the sermon, though he was usually able to repeat the next day, with considerable accuracy, the main things the minister had said.

This whole neighborhood bristles with memories of great people. The old Tayloe mansion was styled, in its later years, “the Cream-white House,” partly because of its color, and partly in jocose reference to its occupancy by two or three Vice-presidents. The house on the corner north of it, now owned by the Cosmos Club, was the home of Dolly Madison in her widowhood. After her death it passed into the hands of Charles Wilkes, the gallant naval officer who was for many years the unrecognized discoverer of the Antarctic continent, and who, in the early days of the Civil War, forcibly took two of his late Washington neighbors, Messrs. Mason and Slidell, off the British steamer Trent, which was conveying them to Europe on a diplomatic mission for the Con-federate Government. South of the Tayloe house is the Belasco Theater, on the site of the old-fashioned red brick building in which occurred the attempted assassination of Secretary Seward and where James G. Blaine passed the last years of his life. On H Street, about a block to the eastward, General McClellan made his headquarters in the intervals between his commands of the Army of the Potomac ; while in a near cluster are former homes of Commodore Decatur, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Montgomery Blair, Gideon Welles, George Bancroft, and John Hay, as well as the house where the Ashburton treaty was negotiated and where Owen Meredith wrote his ” Lucile.” Edward Everett, Jefferson Davis, and Tobias Lear lived, at various times, a short distance away.

One of my favorite excursions about the city with friends who revere the memory of the War President is what I call my “Lincoln pilgrimage.” We start at the White House, turn eastward and take F Street to Tenth, and then southward a half-square. This brings us in front of the building which once was Ford’s Theater, by the route taken by Lincoln on the evening of Good Friday, 1865. Hers are the arches which once opened into the theater lobby but are now used for ground-floor windows ; through one of them he passed on his way to his box. Directly across the street is the house to which he was carried to die. In it is preserved the Oldroyd collection of Lincoln relics, a really remarkable array. After inspecting it, we return to F Street and go eastward again to about the middle of the block, where an alley emerges from a lower level south of us. Down into this we dive, and, making a sharp right-angle turn, find ourselves at the old stage-door of the theater, beside which Booth left his horse, aid through which he made his dash for liberty after his mad deed.

Back again up the alley we climb, through F Street to Ninth, through Ninth to H, and eastward on H Street to Number 604, the house of Mrs. Surratt, the rendezvous of the conspirators and the place where some of them were captured. It looks today very much as it did on the night of ‘the assassination. Retracing our steps to Seventh Street, we board a southbound car, which carries us t6 the gate of the reservation now occupied by the Washington Barracks and the Army War College., Here, within a few hundred feet of the entrance, used to stand the military prison where the conspirators were confined, and in the yard of which they paid the last penalty for their crime.

And here, dear reader, we come to the end of our present walks and talks about Washington. As I warned you at the outset, I have treated our wanderings as a pleasure-jaunt rather than as a medium of solid instruction. When you find yourself thirsting for the severely practical, you can come back and make the round again, if you choose, in a sight-seeing car, and the megaphone-man will point out to you twice as many objects of interest and give you three times as much information about them — accurate or otherwise. He will take pains to show you all the Government buildings and the hotels, the foreign legations and the theaters, the millionaires’ houses, and parks and circles and statuary which I have dismissed with a line or left unmentioned. He will tell you how many tons every bronze weighs, how long every edifice took in building, and how large a fortune every Senator amassed before crowning his career with a tour of public service. I could have told you these things, too, but, rather than force too fast a gait upon you, I have left them for the megaphone-man and taken for my task some odds and ends he could not take for his. I should have liked to tell you how the Government swept all the electric wires out of the sky and hid them under-ground ; how it drained the marshes on the city’s western edge, cleared the channels of the Potomac, and built out of the dredgings a big pleasure-ground ; and how it got rid of the annual inundations, in one of which, just about a generation ago, I crossed the busiest part of Pennsylvania Avenue in a rowboat.

These improvements, and others in the same category, have been paralleled by the changes in the architecture of the city, at the expense of tearing down something old to make room for whatever new was to go up. Touched by the spirit of progress, the face of Washington is rapidly becoming as destitute of landmarks as its origin is destitute of myths, and the artist who visits it in quest of the antique has a hunt before him. Nevertheless, it has not lost its picturesque appeal for the pencil guided by imagination, or its colorful legends for the memory seeking relief from more serious things.